John Motson: 50 years as a commentator

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Legendary football commentator John Motson will hang up his microphone at the end of the season after an illustrious 50-year career with the BBC.

Motson, 72, has worked on Match of the Day since 1971, and covered 10 World Cups, 10 European Championships and 23 FA Cup finals for BBC Sport.

He has commentated on almost 2,500 televised games, but his trademark chuckle is still present and his penchant for a killer stat has not faded over the past five decades.

“I have had a wonderful time,” Motson told BBC Sport.

“I don’t think things could have gone any better for me because I was football-mad as a boy, and to get a job watching the game and going to all the major events I have been to has been very rewarding.”

Taking Rod Stewart’s advice

Motson started out as a journalist on a local newspaper, the Barnet Press, when he left school in the early 1960s.

He moved to BBC Radio Sheffield in 1967, before the call came from Match of the Day in 1971. It took a chat over a pint with a rock star before he believed commentary was truly his calling, however.

“In the early days, I used to get nervous before games, and have sleepless nights,” recalled Motson.

“But I once played in a football match that Rod Stewart organised on his own pitch at his house in Epping, and he took all the players to his local pub afterwards.

The BBC World Cup Grandstand team for the 1978 World Cup (l-r): Alan Weeks, Barry Davies, Jimmy Hill, John Motson, David Coleman, Frank Bough, Archie Macpherson and Tony Gubba.

“We were just chatting and I don’t know how it came up, but I must have asked him something like do you get nervous when you go on stage?

“He said: ‘Nervous? Why would I be nervous? Singing is what I do.’

“It sounded such a simple answer and I thought to myself: ‘Well it is about time I started to think football commentary is what I do, so why am I getting myself so worked up about it?

“Even now, I still get a bit apprehensive before a game, because I am worried about whether I have done enough preparation or if something is going to catch me out.

“But the fear factor has gone – as it should have done by now really, after nearly 50 years. It was good advice by Rod at the time, and I am glad I took it on board.”

What has changed?

John Motson at Old Trafford during his first season as a Match of the Day commentator, 1971-72

When Motson joined Match of the Day, there were only three TV channels available to the UK audience – BBC One, BBC Two and ITV. And only one club match was broadcast live each season – the FA Cup final.

“Two things have changed the most about my job in the years I have been doing it,” said Motson. “The number of commentators and the camera coverage you get in the modern game.

“When I started commentating there were about six of us on TV – three apiece on the BBC and ITV.

“Now, if you were to add up everyone broadcasting live commentary on TV and radio, including local radio, then there are well over 100 football commentators, and I have no doubt all of them are jostling for position.

“So, the competition to get above the rest and be the lead commentator, or whatever you want to call it, is much fiercer than it was when I was starting out.

“By the same token, there were not as many jobs going back then, so to get one was an achievement in itself.

Motty has become famous for his sheepskin coats but he insists he did not intend to make them part of his image. “Quite simply I bought them to keep myself warm in the commentary box because I wanted something to cover my knees. The reason they became my trademark was when I went on Grandstand, shivering in the snow, to explain a game had been called off. People always remembered that”

“As far as the camera coverage goes, when I started out on Match of the Day, I didn’t have a replay machine that allowed me to see an incident again. It was very much like being a referee, in that I had one look at what happened.

“We still had to describe it again as if we were watching for a second time via a replay, but the replays themselves were actually only added in for Match of the Day later on Saturday evening, when the BBC football department got the machine from horse racing.

“You just had to hope that what you had said earlier matched what had actually happened – and that you had got the name of the goalscorer right too.

“Now of course, with all the technology we have got, you can watch something again from five or six different angles.

“So, in terms of calling something correctly, things have become easier.

“But, because there are so many more people doing it, I would imagine that if you were a young commentator now you would find it quite hard to push your way through the crowd.”

Archive: MOTD’s tribute to John Motson

What hasn’t changed?

Much about football and the way we watch it may have changed since Motson made his commentary debut, but his famously meticulous preparation remains the same as it was almost half a century ago.

“I still use felt tip pens for my notes, on a white board that I carry around with me,” Motson explained. “I am not into the computer technology – you can say that quite safely.

Motson hard at work at home in 1997 – “My weekly routine has not changed at all”

“And my method of preparation has not changed at all either. Before a Saturday game, I still phone up both clubs to speak to the managers or whoever I know there as part of my weekly routine to try to find out how they are going to line up.

“It can be quite time consuming, because teams have got squads of 25 now, but as a commentator you want to go to the game and have some idea of who is going to start, and how the teams are going to line up.

“I do a lot of research into that by watching DVDs of them in previous matches but also by going to midweek matches myself. It is never just about the match-day as a commentator – I turned it into a full-time job.

“When people see me at games they always ask me if I will be doing a commentary from the stands. I don’t do that, though, no.

John Motson’s home archive pictured in 2013 – the FA Cup is not his own, however

“What I do is make notes of which position certain players are playing in, who takes corners, what the formations were and noting down substitutions.

“So, yes, I am working in a sense but I am not actually commentating under my breath the whole time.”

The best moments

Archive: Clough gives Motty a tough time

Interviewing managers was another part of Motson’s role and from Brian Clough and Bill Shankly to Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Alf Ramsey, he has sat down with every iconic manager from the 1970s onwards.

“As a football commentator you have also got to be a responsible journalist,” added Motson. “Sometimes when I interviewed people, they did not like the question, but that is part of the job.

“With Cloughie, you never knew what he would say next. He could be quite controversial so it was very challenging to have to be on the other end of it.

“But Sir Alf was my first interview, and one of the toughest. I had to speak to him the night that England missed out on the 1974 World Cup finals, and I had to ask him if he was going to keep his job.

John Motson quizzes Sven-Goran Eriksson during the Swede’s time as England manager

“I got the hairdryer treatment from Sir Alex more than once too. There was one row I remember in particular in 1995, when Roy Keane had just been sent off for Manchester United and I asked Ferguson about his disciplinary record.

“After telling me in no uncertain terms that I had no right to ask that question, he just ended the interview there and then and walked off up the tunnel in a huff – but he was alright with me when I met him again a week later.

“I really enjoyed that side of it, as well as all the matches I went to.

“But what I would pick out from the past 50 years is not so much the individual games but the events I covered – those World Cups, European Championships and FA Cup finals.

“Going to the big tournaments and trying to convey the atmosphere to the people back home, especially when I was with the England team, was very challenging but has given me so many great memories.”

John Motson was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan

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